MTG Hawke’s Bay History

Early Days, Early Roots

Hawke's Bay's sense of itself as a distinctive region has always been strong and a succession of institutions have been instrumental in supporting the regions desire to explore that distinctiveness. These include the Mechanics Institute (1859), the Athenaeum (1865), the Philosophical Society (1874), the Napier Society of Arts and Crafts (1924), Hawke's Bay Art Gallery and Museum (1936), Hawke’s Bay Museum (1989, the Hawke's Bay Museum & Art Gallery (2006) and MTG Hawke’s Bay (2013).

The Mechanics Institute and the Philosophical Institute were housed in the Athenaeum building, built in 1865; these groups had, as their core members, a number of individuals at the forefront of the colonial scientific movement including William Colenso, Henry Hill and Augustus Hamilton.

The leading minds of the Athenaeum are the ancestors of today's MTG Hawke’s Bay the rich history of which is peppered with larger-than-life legends and heroic, colourful characters.

Augustus Hamilton, employed as Honorary Curator of the Philosophical Institute in 1883, played a crucial role in the development and acquisition of its collections. Hamilton donated a significant private collection to the Institute that included New Zealand fauna; fossils; moa bones; Maori carvings from canoes and buildings; adzes; tattooing implements; needles and fish hooks. He later founded the Colonial Museum (now Te Papa) but had his first experience with museum collections in Hawke’s Bay.

William Colenso, printer of some of the most significant documents in New Zealand history, missionary, explorer and botanist, a freewheeling politician and controversialist, transcended his skills in botany and natural history to be recognised as a man of real intellectual distinction. He was a central figure in the Philosophical Society, an early incarnation of MTG Hawke’s Bay.


"We began with no income and experience but with plenty of ideas and ambitions." Leo Bestall


Leo Bestall, collection of Hawke's Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Ta-u-rangi, 15265

Out of the devastation of the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake came a heightened desire to create a fitting home for the region’s artefacts and stories. Although the original Athenaeum building came through the earthquake unscathed, by 1936, the Hawke's Bay community had raised enough money to build the first section of a new Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

Designed by prominent architect James Augustus Louis Hay (1881– 1948) the first rooms of this splendid Art Deco style building opened in 1936. Together with the new building, the gifting of three significant collections – the McLean collection, the Graecen Black collection, and the Williams family Waipare collection formed the basis of the new institution now under the directorship of Leo Bestall.

Leo Bestall had trained as an architect in Christchurch but had returned to Napier join the family’s drapery business. Throughout the 1920s he channeled his energies into becoming the driving force in the Napier Society of Arts and Crafts and by 1936 he was the obvious choice to head the new Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery & Museum.

By the end of the Second World War Leo Bestall had focused the institution around New Zealand and British art and history promoting the need for an art gallery in the rapidly growing region. Bestall spoke of thinking of the organisation as ‘a full museum in the miniature’. It was vital Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery & Museum never acted like a ‘small museum’ and this attitude has driven subsequent intuitions on the site.

Leo Bestall's reputation was recognised internationally as he became a frequent international traveller and active participant in the development of museum thinking. Soon the Art Gallery and Museums’ position was further solidified by a series of generous bequests which enriched the collection. This included a significant bequest by the De Beere family that allowed the purchase of Renaissanceby Roland Hipkins one of the leading lights of the fine art collection. Bestall travelled the world and brought back artworks and artefacts. Leo Bestall also spearheaded the construction of the McLean Gallery in 1937, the Gwen Malden Gallery in 1954, and the Holt Gallery in 1959. One month before the last of these opened, Leo Bestall died.

Leo Bestall's legacy is still apparent at the modern MTG Hawke’s Bay. Bestall shaped the collections and defined the overall focus of the organisation. He introduced a fuller range of experiences for all visitors, including an active programme of music and the first children's museum. Under the stewardship of one of New Zealand's leading museum directors’ professionalism, education and the collections themselves blossomed.

The original Hawke’s Bay Museum & Art Gallery building still stands today and was extensively restored as part of the redevelopment project in 2013. Emilio Greco’s sculpture Grand Baignante III (1957) affectionately known as ‘the Bather’ stands in the octagon foyer a memorial to Leo Bestall. The work was purchased in Europe in 1960s by art historian Peter Tomory with funds raised by the people of Napier as a memorial to their Director.


"Each museum has a personality and that personality should be pervasive." James Munro

Jim Munro, collection of Hawke's Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Ta-u-rangi, 2831a

As with many museums, the collections at MTG Hawke’s Bay have been shaped by the personality of its directors. When Leo Bestall died in 1959, the Museum gained a new director in James Munro, and his personal passions began to add to the strengths of MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Munro began his long association with MTG Hawke’s Bay as a volunteer while Bestall was Director. He came from a background of engineering and administration rather than museology. It was his passion that led him to become an influential personality in the life of the Museum. His directorship was very different to that of Bestall’s but they shared an unrelenting belief in the role of museums within communities.

His chief interest was in ceramics and although he concentrated his art-buying efforts on local works, his ceramic purchases gave the Museum an international collection of note. Munro was a great supporter of the emerging New Zealand crafts movement. Rather than relying on static collections, Munro introduced temporary exhibitions to MTG Hawke’s Bay a legacy that continues to define the museum to this day.

James Munro’s dedication to a broader role for Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery & Museum led to the building of the Century Theatre in 1977 named for the centennial of the city of Napier. Designed by leading Hawke’s Bay modernist Guy Natusch, of Natusch Shattkey & Co, the Theatre has played a key role in MTG Hawke’s Bay and in the region, acting as both concert hall and cinema.


In 1980 James Munro was followed by Robert McGregor who undertook the reshaping of gallery spaces, particularly at basement level, and the professionalization of staff and policy. The collection grew significantly and began to see the potential in collecting Art Deco items to enhance the experience of the city itself. Under the influence of Curator David Butts the institution started to form closer relationships in local Iwi. In 1984 items from the collection where included in Te Maori which toured American institutions in the middle years of the decade.

However by the mid-1980s it was clear that the structures put in place to support the museum, which dated from the1930s, were no longer coping and that something had to be done about the funding situation. In 1989 the Hawke's Bay Cultural Trust was formed to provide a single entity to run the Hawke's Museum and the Hastings Exhibition Centre under the leadership of Roger Smith. The governance structure had representation from Napier City Council and Hastings District Council and the Hawke’s Bay Museum & Art Gallery (then reformed as the Friends of the Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust).

After ten years the Napier City and Hastings District Councils commissioned a review to investigate possible future directions of the two institutions. A consultation process followed and resulted in a new governance structure and constitution. However it became apparent that the renamed Hawke’s Bay Museum could better benefit the community and the collection under new management, with the energy and direction that comes with a major change.

In 2006 the Napier City Council took over management of Hawke's Bay Museum. A new Director was appointed and the name of the institution changed to Hawke's Bay Museum & Art Gallery to reflect its integrated exhibition programme and its proud legacy within the city. The Hawke's Bay Museums Trust (Hawke's Bay Cultural Trust, 1989) was re-formed to become the organisation that holds the collections for the benefit of the community. At the same time the Hawke’s Bay Exhibitions Centre (now known as the Hastings City Art Gallery) came under management of the Hastings District Council.

In July 2010 the Hawke's Bay Museum & Art Gallery closed as it embarked on a significant redevelopment project that would repackage the exterior to match the wealth within.



MTG Hawke’s Bay is more than a museum, theatre and art gallery; it is realising its ambition of becoming a centre of thought-leadership through symposiums, conferences, film programmes, talks and debate. Today MTG Hawke’s Bay embodies much of what its forefathers wanted it to be. Its William Colenso’s home of ideas, Leo Bestall’s full museum in the miniature, Augustus Hamilton’s keeper of local taonga, James Munro’s collector of New Zealand applied arts and crafts. And alongside this rich history, MTG Hawke’s Bay is a trend-spotter, adroit at reinvention: responsive, smart-thinking and worldly.


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